A ride on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad

The day had arrived when I was going to try out another of North Carolina's tourist attractions. I was going for a ride on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, the only railway line in Western North Carolina, carrying passengers – but only for tourist tours. The tours leave from Bryson City and one will take you along the Nantahala River to Nantahala Gorge, a gap in the Great Smoky Mountains, while the other will take you along the Tuscasegee River to the town of Dillsboro. Both trips takes around 4 hours and will take you back to Bryson City. I had chosen the trip to Nantahala Gorge and had booked the ticket from home. You can buy tickets on site and on the day, but then you can’t be sure to get a seat.

When I bought the ticket I had read on the internet page that I should get to the station about one hour before departure, which in this case was at 10:30. The reason for this was to give you time to park the car, but also because the printed receipt that I received when I bought the trip, had to be exchanged for a real ticket at the train depot. I left my hotel at 8.30, and as there are only ten miles (16 km) from Cherokee to Bryson City, I was in really good time. I therefore drove rather slowly and had plenty of time to enjoy the nature surrounding US Highway 19 connecting the two towns. At 9 am I arrived in Bryson City, where I easily located the car park where the railway company recommended visitors to park. Here you can leave your car for a whole day for only 5 dollars. There are places in town, where you can park for free, but only for two hours, and as the trip lasts more than 4, this is not recommendable. When I left the car, I was approached by a man in something that looked like a railroad uniform. My car had license plates from Nevada, and the man asked me if I had been driving all the way from this state. To that end, I could tell him that I had actually been driving all the way from Los Angeles. "Just to ride on the train?" he then asked, which I of course confirmed - though with tongue in cheek. I then added at my own expense that I was actually from Denmark in Europe, which apparently impressed him a lot. He asked if I knew where I had to go to find the ticket office, which I did not (although I would probably have figured out sooner or later that it was near the depot). We therefore walked along in the right direction as we talked about this and that. He explained that he was "historical conductor" and entertained the passengers along the trip with facts about Engine 1702, the steam engine that was to pull the train to the gap. Most trips are pulled by diesel engines, but I had deliberately chosen this trip just to get into old-fashioned steam mood. He also explained that he often "made fun of" one of the passengers along the way and asked if he could use me for that purpose, which of course I accepted.

The steam engine at Nantahala Gorge

When we reached the ticket office, I said goodbye to the conductor whose name was Ron by the way. (I’ve met a lot of tourist guides with that name in USA, so I guess that’s what you have do if your parents have given you that name). Ron walked to the train as I entered the ticket office. Here I exchanged my receipt for a folder containing various tickets. One was the actual train ticket and as I had booked a 1st class ticket, where lunch was included, there was also a food ticket. In addition, a ticket for a bag that we would receive on board and finally there was a ticket to the train museum at the depot - well yes, and finally a souvenir ticket you could take home as proof that you had been on the train. The museum would be open when we returned from the trip. Finally, I got a thermos cup and the lady at the counter explained that outside the building I could fill it up with either a cold or hot drink for free as I had the First Class ticket. "Lower class" ticket holders would have to buy the cup! Last but not least, I was told that I had to board the train at 10 am, ie half an hour before departure. As I had about 30 minutes until then, I went for a short walk. I had actually previously visited Bryson City several times in the past, but even so spent some time looking at the river, the old courthouse and more before I returned to the station. Here I filled my thermos with free coffee, and while I was waiting I spoke with some other Danes that was also going on the trip. In fact, the first and, as it should turn out, the only Danes I met during the three weeks I was in USA. They were two couples around my own age or rather 1˝ couple, because I never saw one of the men who must have hidden somewhere. We talked a little about our respective vacations; what we had done so far and what we were going to do later. When it was time to board, we said goodbye as we were not going to sit in the same cars, and I did not see them again.

I walked down to the car that my ticket was valid for as 1st class had reserved seats. There are also reserved seats in some but not all of the other cars. All cars had a name, and mine was MacNeill. When the “train attendant” let us in to the car, it turned out that there was room for 42 people and all seats were occupied before we left the station. I was seated at a table for two with a young man whose parents was at the table behind him. Unfortunately, it turned out that it was in the "wrong" side of the train, as the view from the other was somewhat more impressive, but that's how things go. Very soon I was having a conversation with the young man, his parents and the passengers at the tables behind and next to me. When everybody had boarded, the train slowly rolled out of the station. The train stewardess told us about the trip, and along the way, she also told us about the sights that we passed by, among other things, the oldest house in Swain County and a closed railway depot, which is almost all that is left of the town of Almond, although there are also a couple of houses. At one point, Ron, the conductor that I have met when I arrived in Bryson City, entered the car and talked about Steam Engine 1702. The engine was built in 1942 for the US Army. The locomotive should have been sent to Europe and transported troops, but ended up pulling freight trains between military bases in the United States. At one point it sold to a private owner and had changed ownership a couple of times. But finally it ended up at the GSMR. Over the years it was allowed to dilapidate and in 2004 it was retired from duty, but a new owner of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad wanted to restore it, and through a collaboration between Swain County, Bryson City and private investors, it was restored to its former glory for an investment of almost $2 million, and now it pulled tourists on the two GSMR lines. For railway enthusiasts (and any other who read this), I can tell that Engine 1702 is a so-called 2-8-0 locomotive. 2-8-0 represents the wheel arrangement of two leading wheels on one axle, eight powered and coupled driving wheels on four axles and no trailing wheels. This configuration is normally referred to as “consolidation” in the US. The locomotive weighs 160 tons, and was originally fired by coal, but is today converted to oil and runs on a mixture of fuel oil and waste oil. Of the 2,120 locomotives of this type that were built, only 26 are left today.

Along the way we were entertained by a singer and banjo player who performed in our car for about 15 minutes before moving on to other cars. The train hostess, who was called Renee, told her that she had been employed for 10 years and previously had driven a school bus. At one time there had been a couple of students on the bus who had become high school sweethearts. They had now married and both worked on the train, he as chef and she as a photographer, and very soon she came through the car and took pictures of everyone, and on the return trip she came back to sell her pictures, which did with success to quite a few of the passengers - but I didn't buy any though. Along the way the tracks ran next to Nantahala River and passed a part of Fontana Lake, an artificial lake on the Little Tennessee River created when Fontana Dam was built in the 1940s to provide electricity for local the aluminum production. The dam is the tallest dam in the eastern United States with its 150 meters, but I know that only because I visited it in 2017. On this trip we followed and crossed the lake at one point, but at the opposite end of where the dam is located. When we reached the end of the train ride in Nantahala Gorge, we of course had to go back. As it is not possible to turn around the he locomotive, two diesel locomotives were at the other end of the train, which then pulled the train back to Bryson City. As the train had about 20 cars, I did not notice these diesel locomotives when we left the depot in the first place.

On the way to Nantahala Gorge, we had passed Nantahala Outdoor Center, and when we got back there, the train paused here for an hour allowing the passengers to leave the train and enjoy the surroundings here. There was the possibility of rafting, kayaking and other river activities, but I chose to stay on land. There are also restaurants, a general store and a shop that sells outdoor equipment, and I chose to visit this shop first, and here I ended up buying a real "outdoor hat” instead of the baseball cap that I otherwise wore. I have since worn the hat it every time I'm on my daily walks. Here at the outdoor center the famous 2,200 miles long Appalachian Trail crosses the railway line, so I took advantage of the opportunity for a walk on the trail. Not all 2,200 miles but half a mile one way and half a back, so now all I miss is a little over 2,199 miles! But before trying to achieve that, I'll probably have to get in a better shape than I am now. When I got back to the train, there was still time for a short walk along the river, and then I had to board again. We had ordered lunch from home (I had ordered chicken salad) and for extra amount I had a local, very local beer made for the Cherokee tribe, but by a brewery located outside the "reservation" that has had a no-alcohol policy ever since since 1819! On my return I just had a cup of coffee. Along the way, the conductor, came back, and then I had to stand up, while he told everyone else in the car about the "stupid Dane" who traveled all the way to North Carolina just for a train ride - and had even driven by  car from California! It was well received by the audience, and I got many greetings along the way. The conductor also pointed out that when we got back to Bryson City, everyone could help turn the locomotive by hand - and visit the train museum. However, I did not participate in any of these pastimes as I had other things on my schedule.

Deserted street in Spruce Pine

When we got back to Bryson City it was a little past 3 pm and as I had about 110 miles to go I went straight back to my car and headed for today's goal in Spruce Pine northeast of Bryson City. I took US 19 back east from Bryson City to Cherokee and continued towards Lake Junaluska where I switched to I-40, an interstate that I have driven on all my US tours except in 2008. When I got to Asheville I switched to I-26, and headed north. At the small town, Mars Hill, I left the interstate. Mars Hill has only 2,000 inhabitants, but it has a university, and as part of my "visit a university campaign" I simply had to see the place. Mars Hill University, which has 1,400 students, was founded in 1856 and is the oldest university in Western North Carolina. Lovely buildings here :-). From Mars Hill there are only around 35 miles to Spruce Pine, and I arrived just before 6 pm. I found my Bed & Breakfast, Richmond Inn without any problems. One of my acquaintances that I had planned to meet the following day had recommended this place, and it proved to be excellent. It was on a hill above the town center, and when I had checked in, I asked the landlady. Maggie, where I could find a place to eat. It turned out that there were only two places in town that were open on a Sunday. One was a sports bar, the other a Mexican restaurant. I later found out that if I had taken the car and driven 5 or 6 miles to the southern outskirts of town, I would have found some of the usual chain restaurants, which of course was open, but as it were I decided to walk to " downtown" if you can call it that. There were only two streets, and they were both totally deserted except for some parked cars.

I chose the Mexican restaurant where there were only about three customers beside me, even though a few more arrived while I was dining. Here I ordered what proved to be an excellent homemade guacamole, although it was not made the table as in New York, see the article Everything comes to an end on my 2014 travel page. As a main course, I had some beef in a sauce spiced with green chili, a dish appropriately named Chili Verde. Everything was excellent and not particularly expensive. On my way back to the B & B I looked a little around  town, but it hadn’t become more lively since I had walked in the opposite direction. In fact, it was the deadest city I've experienced in the United States. Even in Blanding in Utah on July 4th, there was more life, see the article Rocks in many shapes and colors from 2006.

The weather was brilliant all day. Sun from a cloudless sky from the morning and even though there were a few clouds throughout the day, it never became cloudy. The temperature was between 80 and 85 degrees, and the humidity has no too bad either.

- Return to Friendly trip tour -
- Return to Travel page -